The POV Dispatch is our Autodesk internal newsletter, published monthly, where we discuss the big ideas that are important to us and our customers. It is published by our Corporate Strategy & Engagement team of which Autodesk Labs is a part. Bill O'Connor is a Corporate Strategist. Bill contributed an article about storytelling to a recent issue, and with her permission, I thought I would share it with you.
"If you're not confused...you don't really understand what's going on."
— Traditional Irish saying about political struggles with England
In the three years since kicking off the Innovation Genome Project here at Autodesk, I've taken part in enough "innovation"-related presentations, workshops, strategy sessions, meetings, conferences, conversations, debates, brouhahas, donnybrooks, contretemps, and mishugganah situations to last a lifetime. This project — where we are studying the greatest innovations over the past 2.6 million years, to distill practical innovation techniques that people can use today — has brought me into contact with teams from all over Autodesk, startups from all over the Bay Area, Autodesk customers from all over the country, and governmental delegations from all around the world. So at this point, three years in, I thought I'd write up a kind of field report about what I've seen, heard, done, and learned in the process of presenting the IGP (Innovation Genome Project) to all of these people, with the goal of giving you yet another perspective on what's happening out beyond our walls in terms of innovation.
Here are six of the most interesting things I've observed in my three years of innovation immersion...
Premise — Confirmed! Yes, Virginia, We Are Often Clueless About Innovation
The initial premise of the IGP was that we needed greater clarity about what innovation is, and better techniques for actually doing it. This has proven to be mostly true, and there's a continuum that proves it: at one end of the continuum we have companies/people who will flat out tell you that they don't understand innovation and are worried that they're not doing enough of it; at the other end there are people who are actually doing innovative work, but they're not always very systematic about how they do that work, and they certainly want to keep adding more skills/insights about innovation to their own arsenal. So at this point, innovation as a discipline is, to be charitable, still developing — tons of potential, of course, but it's still, in many ways, early days.
Planet Innovation: A Hot Topic, All Over the World (But Your Culture Really Matters)
One of the best things about the IGP has been the people it's introduced me to. Over the past three years I've met, talked, and/or worked with people from 23 countries, including Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, Japan, India, Israel, etc. The languages, styles, and modes of thought are different, but innovation has become a kind of lingua franca, and unifying principle that can be spoken like a business shibboleth, and which can form strong connections ever among people with different backgrounds. One thing I've noticed watching this multinational parade roll by is the clear connection between the openness of a particular culture and the ability of its people to innovate, or at least discuss the topic fluently (not the same thing, of course, but that's a different story). For example, among the many Chinese delegations and companies I've met, it's clear that the relatively closed/conservative culture in which they're operating is going to be a challenge for them as they work on improving their innovation game. Or, as my wife Andrea put it this morning, for all of the talk of a single, global economy, the Far East is still a long way from the Wild West.
Comrades in Innovation (a.k.a., Thought Leaders and Wrought Leaders)
Okay, if you stopped reading this piece here, from the last two sections you might get the idea that I'm snarkily suggesting that, on all things innovation, we're basically globally clueless. But that's not entirely true. My innovation travels have also given me a lot of contact with people who DO know what innovation is (or at least they have a strong POV), and DO actually do innovative work. Here's a list of some of the Comrades in Innovation I've come in contact with, from the SF Bay Area and beyond — organizations and people that are shaping the dialogue and influencing the practice of innovation: IDEO, Mozilla, Berkeley/Haas, Frog Design, Fuse Project, innovation Gurettes Julie Anixter (Innovation Excellence) and Kim MacDonald (author of !nnovation), Apple, Spigit, and of course, long-time Friends of Autodesk Nathan Shedroff and Sara Beckman. Some themes about innovation that have emerged from engagements with these folk include:
- Learning (or Not So Much) By Example: Much of the dialogue around innovation still seems to be example-driven. In books, articles, and presentations about innovation, we still see a lot of "Look at how innovative these people were!" The stories are often exciting, and inspiring, but the problem is that there aren't usually enough (or any) transferable insights distilled from the stories to make them practical/useful for the reader/audience.
- Learning By Doing: The Challenge/Project/Contest Approach: A positive counter-balance to the above trend is an increasing focus on learning/doing innovation via challenges/projects. The Hult Prize is a great example, where business school teams from all over the world compete to create a startup focused on addressing a particular challenge. The winning six teams fly to New York for a final showdown, and the winner gets a $1 million check from President Bill Clinton. I coached one of the teams last year, using the IGP as one of the techniques, and they made it to the finals. Seeing this kind of approach to innovation up close was very valuable, because I saw first-hand how much more powerful it is to take the abstract concepts of innovation and directly apply them to a real challenge. That real-world approach is deep in the DNA of the IGP, and it's good to see project-based challenges like this cropping up everywhere, including Berkeley/Haas, where I, and my boss Jon Pittman, Autodesk's VP of Corporate Strategy, have both served as judges.
- Byzantine Complexity is On the Way Out: One approach that was once ubiquitous but is now fading (thank God) is the one that can be summed up as "Hey, look at all of my complex mental models, graphs/charts, tropes/memes, and generally impressive thinking about innovation. You like? Great — that'll be $10,000/day, plus expenses." Once upon a time, you could get away with this, because many companies (and many with deep pockets) were happy to spend a few days doing "Innovation Poetry" with an inspiring business-Shaman — even if it all ended up being ultimately I.B.N.U.: Interesting But Not Useful. But these days, as the imperative for real innovation ramps up, I'm seeing a higher bar being set for any sort of innovation training/presentations, to the point where most companies are expecting to get at least something they can use out of the whole process.
Teaching the Hippo to Surf: Innovation in Big Companies
I'm tired of that metaphor, "Teaching the Elephant to Dance," so I created this one, but it's still the same point: it's tough for big companies, to innovate. We all know the classic reasons usually given for this: too much bureaucracy, risk-aversion, fat-and-happy, blinded by success, brilliant corporate politicians building great careers and crappy products and services, etc. But happily over the past three years I've met and worked with a lot of people from huge companies (including Fortune 100 companies) that are genuinely committed to making their work and their organizations more innovative. Some examples from the Autodesk customer world include: Fluor, Parker-Hannifin, Jacobs Engineering, the Gap, and Cushman & Wakefield. Many people at big companies like these care about innovation and are pushing their teams, colleagues, and senior leaders to embrace real innovation, or at least to get out of the way when it happens. For certain huge companies — HP and Microsoft come to mind — there seems to be an intangible force that often fights against innovation, but in others, like those mentioned above, I've seen a lot of determination around doing more innovative work.
I'm From the Government — and I'm Here to Innovate
The biggest surprise for me over the past three years has been the interest in the IGP from the government sector, and the related impact investing sphere. My Innovation/Government list over the past few years includes: the CIO of the U.S. Navy (a great guy named Terry Halvorsen), the U.S. Naval Academy, FEMA, the World Bank, San Francisco's Chief Innovation Officer, Jay Nath, the State Department, Stanford's Center for Social Innovation, California's Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and Congressman Jared Huffman (D-Marin, aka, my Congressman). Talking about "government" and "innovation" in the same sentence is, of course, a great straight line, and please feel to [insert punch line here], but nevertheless there are a lot of smart government/impact investing people who see that the only way to successfully address the big, complex challenges in their realms is through innovation. And given the "small government" vibe in much of the country today, I'm also seeing a lot of people who see innovation as a way to make government more effective and efficient.
Autodesk + Innovation: Huh-Duh...
I think that, over the past 6-8 years, Autodesk has become a much more innovative company than it was before. Better customer experiences, going to the Cloud, embracing the consumer market, exploring things like 3D printing and synthetic biology, a new Autodesk brand — all of those are persuasive data points that we are doing innovative work. What's more, I have found many people and teams around the company who are actively looking for ways to do even more innovative work. I've presented the IGP to about 20 different people/teams inside Autodesk, and as a result the company has been one of the most valuable test beds for developing the project. And I think these two aspects of innovation at Autodesk are related: it would have been hard to develop a project like this at a non-innovative company, and looking forward I think Autodesk as a whole will continue to play a key role in where the IGP goes next.
So that's my field report on three years of innovation immersion. Questions/comments/critiques? Send a note to email@example.com.
Innovation storytelling is alive in the lab.